In a post last week I noted the publication of the UK’s National Ecosystem Assessment. There’s been a bit of controversy about the reporting, and I’ve now had a chance to read at least some of the document summary (in itself 87 pages…)
The authors wrote a letter to the Guardian complaining about its coverage of the report:
… it is important that its key messages are not lost in a debate over economic valuation, which is not what this report is about. Indeed, the NEA explicitly recognises that … our attitudes to nature need to recognise the shared social values (such as the song of the nightingale), the mental solace and other health benefits we derive from a walk in the bluebell woods, alongside the limited economic values that we might be able to estimate.
The problem is that the government press release on the DEFRA website does put things in very economic language, introducing things as:
The research forms the basis of a major new independent report – the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (UK NEA) – which reveals that nature is worth billions of pounds to the UK economy.
Now, the report most definitely does not couch things purely in economic terms. It sees three separate benefits from nature and “ecosystem services” – economic, health, and social, the last of these including cultural and even spiritual benefits. However, it then seeks to convert the others into monetary terms where possible, and there are plenty of such estimated figures in the report. So to me the DEFRA summary and Guardian coverage seem not unreasonable.
And, of course, we return to the point made by Damian Carrington, and explicitly in the report: if decisions are made primarily on economic grounds, which they seem to be, then it is better for nature to have a value on that measure than have zero value.
Reading the report also confirms my other concern: where nature has a value, it is only in terms of “ecosystem services” provided directly or indirectly to human beings. Indeed, this is made clear in the methodology (pp15-16 of the summary):
In order to assess the contribution of ecosystem services and
goods to human well-being, the UK NEA has developed an
innovative approach to valuing ecosystem services (Chapters
22–24 of the Technical Report) which takes into account the full
range of monetary (market and non-market) and non-monetary
values of ecosystem service flows to individuals and collectively
to society. Our approach to non-monetary benefits to people
from ecosystems was to describe additional well-being measures
as health and shared social values.
Can nature have inherent value under this definition? And how do you take account of things like biodiversity? The report certainly talks about more global effects, notably climate change, but that has a proxy measure in terms of CO2e emissions. I’m not sure how risk of species loss could be factored into the decision making process, but maybe that’s buried in the report in a place I haven’t found it yet.